I agree that Jesus was speaking to individuals. In the end, while I understand the need for community and organized movements, I place my hope in individuals. If we do not transform our selves as selves there is no hope for transforming society. The individual transformation for which I hope is one that leads us out of the narrow mind of cults, creeds, tribes, etc., and into the spacious mind awake to the One God/Reality giving rise to one world, one humanity, and one moral code—justice and compassion for all beings.
OK, on to the final Beatitude: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely, on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The key issue for me in this Beatitude is Jesus’ saying, “on my account.” Why would people be persecuted because of Jesus?
The answer I hear most often is that followers of Jesus, then and now, in ancient Israel and in contemporary America, are persecuted because they are pro-life, pro-gun, pro-God, anti-gay, and (according to a couple of my acquaintances) anti-dancing. To impose 21st century culture war values on 1st century Jewish society is, however, both silly and anachronistic, and I won’t say any more about it.
The second reason I can imagine for people being persecuted on Jesus’ account has to do with Jewish life in Matthew’s time. When the Gospel of Matthew was written Jesus had been dead for decades. The early church was emerging and competing with the Pharisees for the loyalty of the Jews. As the rabbis saw it, Jewish Christians were a threat to their power, their authority, and the foundation of Jewish society as they saw it, namely the legal rulings of the rabbis themselves.
In this context it is not hard to imagine families being torn apart, with some members siding with Jesus and others with the rabbis. Since Peter, James and the other Jewish Christians continued to attend and preach in the synagogue, conflict between mainstream Jews and Jewish Christians was probably both common and heated.
But this wasn’t going on in Jesus’ own day. If we are going to take our text seriously, we either have to assume that it was written by Matthew and therefore reflects the situation of his day, or that Jesus was thinking of something else entirely. For argument’s sake, I opt for the latter.
The Jews of Jesus’ day had four basic options when dealing with the socio-economic-political-religious tenor of their day. They could follow the path of the Sadducees and collaborate with Rome; they could follow the Pharisees and seek to create their own society within the occupation; they could follow the Qumran model, opt out of Jewish and Roman society altogether, and take up a pure and pious life in the desert, or they could follow the Zealots and take up jihad against Rome.
Jesus, I believe, offered a fifth way: nonviolent engagement with Rome, Sadducees, and Pharisee and on behalf of the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised. He challenged the corruption of the Priesthood and the Sacrificial System, the immorality of the courts, the unjust and brutal occupation by Rome, and the violence preached by those who would wage holy war (in fact, i.e. the Zealots, or in fantasy, i.e. the Qumran community) against Rome.
We have already talked about the politics of “turning the other cheek,” and “walking the second mile,” and it is to this that I am referring. Jesus, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King who modeled themselves after him, believed in the power of what Gandhi called satyagraha, nonviolent truth force, and in the power of prophetic theater to effect social change. He trusted that even the hardest heart, if forced to look at itself honestly, would eventually soften. And his way was to confront that heart with the pain and suffering it caused others.
Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus says, “One who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. One who finds his life will lose it, and one who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39). Imagine what would have happened if the Jews had done just that. What if tens of thousands of Jews presented themselves for crucifixion along with Jesus? Would Rome have slaughtered them all?
As brutal as the regime was, history shows that it had its limits. The mass act of prophetic theater with thousands upon thousands of Jews walking nonviolently to be crucified on Golgotha would have overwhelmed the system of intimidation and caused a revolution that might have changed everything. This is exactly what Christians did when powerfully and nonviolently (at least on their part) stood for execution in the Roman coliseum. And, it can be argued, their display of faith grew the movement and gained it respect.
Of course Rome had crucified thousands before (I love the movie Spartacus), but never an entire society. Crucifixion was a tool of intimidation, but if everyone picked up her or his cross and volunteered to die upon it, there would be no more intimidation left in it. If you are not afraid to die, you are at last fearless enough to live.
The same nonviolent acts of Satyagraha on the part of the Palestinian people would, by the way, put an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and end to settlement expansion, an end to the building of the “security wall,” and an end to the rationalization for continued Israeli occupation altogether. While the Muslims of India had their “Muslim Gandhi,” the Pashtun leader Badshah Kahn, the Palestinians have yet to find theirs.
In any case, satyagraha is, it think, what Jesus had in mind. If you are persecuted because you take up your cross and challenge the system of oppression that brutalizes the poor, the powerless, the sick, and the disenfranchised then you are worthy of standing “with the prophets who were before you.”
Jesus was a revolutionary of the highest order. He was among the best Judaism had to offer. How sad Jews ignore him, Christians spiritualize him, and so few of us truly dare to follow him. And how ironic that those who do are so often condemned by the very people who claim to know and love him the most.
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Can it be that we are finished with this conversation? It seemed to go by so quickly. It was an honor and a blessing to do this with you, Mike. The final thoughts are yours.